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Texas County Loses 911 after Accidental Phone Line Cut

A single construction worker being attacked by bees caused a seven-hour telephone outage in Hays County on Tuesday, during which the 911 emergency response system came to a halt and land-line and cellular service was cut off for many of the county's 130,000 residents.

About 1 p.m., a construction worker on a tractor on the west Interstate 35 access road in Kyle was stung by bees, Hays County sheriff's officials said. The worker jumped off the tractor, in his haste hitting a lever that lowered an auger attached to the vehicle. The auger bore down, slicing into an AT&T fiber-optic line.

AT&T officials couldn't say exactly how many customers were affected by the outage. The company would not disclose the nature of the work being done or the name of the construction company involved.

It took county and telecommunication workers about three hours to determine the outage's cause. Service was restored to most of the county by 8 p.m.

Emergency radios worked while phones were out. Police and other emergency workers told residents to go to their local fire stations to report emergencies or, if their cell phones were working, to call alternate numbers that routed calls for help through a backup system.

Dispatchers at the Kyle Police Department and those in Caldwell County and with Wimberley Emergency Medical Services took emergency calls and relayed them to responders over their radios, Hays County Sheriff Allen Bridges said. But at one point in the afternoon, the county's radio system became overloaded, temporarily unraveling the makeshift emergency communication system. Administrative lines at the sheriff's office were also down.

Capt. Rick Rowell of the San Marcos Fire Department said fire stations around the city were more fully staffed than usual in case they were notified of an emergency. Although no stations had walk-ins Tuesday afternoon, firefighters kept in touch via radios, Rowell said.

"Our business is all about time," Rowell said. "Any delay in being notified about an emergency puts us behind in trying to mitigate it."

The phone outage slowed the response to an emergency call from Dripping Springs High School. School employees called 911 to summon help for a sick student but got a busy signal. A deputy assigned to the campus used his radio to reach responders, Bridges said.

The student did not have a life-threatening condition, he said.

Administrators at the Central Texas Medical Center in San Marcos found it tough to get in touch with employees who live in San Antonio and Austin, President and CEO Gary Jepson said . The hospital had no long-distance service and limited local calling.

"Our electronic medical records are down, so we've gone back to using pen and paper," Jepson said. "If we have to transfer patients to other hospitals, we have radios that go between emergency rooms."

The hospital made it through the day without any major medical crises, spokesman Clay DeStefano said .

"It was fairly low-impact, but it served as a good drill to make sure the systems in place are workable," DeStefano said. "It will be a big problem if it happens long-term."

In March 2005, a cut fiber-optic cable disrupted phone service throughout much of Hays County for about 31/2 hours, knocking out cell phone and long-distance service and causing a brief interruption in the 911 system.

Some residents were not affected as much Tuesday, because four phone companies operate in Hays County. Cell phone carriers route calls in various ways, so service was available in some areas. Time Warner and Grande Communications cable officials reported that their digital phone services in Hays were not affected by the line cut.

In San Marcos, residents had different reactions to having limited phone service. For Ben Holcomb , a technical support worker at a call center, there wasn't much to do Tuesday.

"Everyone was just kind of at a loss," Holcomb said. "It was really weird. Most people were doing nothing for a few hours."

Billy Stracener , a Texas State University student who works at the San Marcos outlets, said he was happy because his boss couldn't reach him on the phone all day. His friend, John Wherry , wasn't as enthusiastic.

"I haven't been able to reach my fiancée all day," Wherry said. "I can't even get her on my apartment phone.

"I must say, it was quiet, though."

At Palmer's Restaurant, Bar and Courtyard, the lack of phone service meant the staff had to "go back to the '80s" - imprinting credit card information using manual rollers and carbon paper, manager Natalie Joyce said.

"It's not a big deal, but we aren't sure if the card is accepted when it goes through," Joyce said. "It's an inconvenience, but it wasn't bad during the time it happened."; (512) 392-8750

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